Written By: Jakub Kalus
A jaw-dropping vertical jump is one of the skills most of us want to have. It doesn’t matter if you play in the NBA, a professional league, or just pick-up basketball in your neighborhood. We all want to feel like Michael Jordan for a while. But how do you do it? How do you increase the vertical jump? Should we just perform repetitions until we get tired (or injured), or should we use more sophisticated methods in our training? In this article, I will explain the basic principles of increasing your vertical jump.
The vertical jump is a skill, and skill needs to be trained to reach mastery. Because basketball and volleyball players often train this skill during the game itself, these athletes have a higher vertical leap than the “average Joe,” even if they didn’t do any specific workouts for vertical jump improvement. If you don’t participate in a sport that uses the vertical leap, a simple tip would be: just jump. But most of us probably won’t like to repeatedly try to touch the basketball rim with our fingers for an hour. If you can actually dunk the ball, that’s a completely different story: many of the best dunkers in the world train just by the dunking itself. Genetics also play a role in the potential maximum height of our vertical jump, but that’s not a reason to avoid improving the leap. There is always room for growth in technique, strength, nutrition, and/or coordination.
A combination of plyometrics with strength training is by far the best way to improve the vertical jump1. Plyometrics use a stretch-shortening cycle, which means that the muscles undergo an eccentric contraction (lengthening of the muscles after making contact with the ground – with plyometric exercises, examples include jumping down boxes or stairs), followed by isometric contraction, which is then followed by concentric contraction (shortening of the muscles) after takeoff. This is the same pattern we see when we stretch a rubber band. The stretch-shortening cycle allows us to exert more power than we can from a static position.
Before we start to use plyometrics, we must learn how to land properly. Simply staying in the proper landing position as shown on a picture below – shoulders above the knees, tightened core, and activated hips – can make a world of difference for untrained athletes.
They can continue to improve their landing by doing vertical jumps from this position with proper arm movement and exerting about 50-70% of their power in the jump, instead of 100%. Proper landing technique from the side and front as well as improper technique are shown in the pictures below.
In the first picture, you can see the alignment of the shoulders and knees. To the right of that, you can see that the athlete is leaning back and the shoulders and the knees are not in alignment. Below, you can see a proper posture after landing on the left, and bad landing technique on the right, where knee valgus is apparent. Younger players and beginners should start lightly with low-impact plyometrics such as ankle hops, jump-rope, or line jumps.
The “kings” of plyometrics are the depth jump and drop jump. The drop jump consists of a jump from a box or a platform on the ground, where the athlete tries to accumulate as much power as possible. The depth jump is different: it adds a vertical jump after landing – the landing can be made with the shortest time possible if we lessen the contact time of our feet with the ground, or longer if we want to exert maximal power. However, if we want to use the help of a stretch-shortening cycle, we should not stay on the ground for too long (longer than two seconds), because the accumulated energy after landing would dissipate. These are very beneficial exercises, but are also the most demanding on the central nervous system (CNS). They don’t feel fatiguing – you won’t struggle to catch your breath doing them – but they represent a great burden for your CNS.
During a drop or depth jump, the athlete should not jump upwards from the box/bench, but simply step down. From there, in order to accumulate as much energy as possible after making contact with the floor, the athlete would start the jump with their heels slightly elevated (a slight tilt is sufficient – enough to stick a pen under the heels) and arms behind them as they prepare for a takeoff. If the athlete tries to make a depth jump, he should swing his arms above him and look upward (on the rim, to the ceiling…). Both these actions add valuable inches to the height of a jump.
The height of a vertical jump depends on the amount of force we can exert during a certain period of time: the higher the force and lower the time, the better. We should focus on getting stronger, and if we are strong and advanced enough, we should try to apply our force as fast as possible. It is difficult to determine one best exercise in the gym, but you won’t make a mistake with choosing any of the exercises that target the muscle groups above: squats, deadlifts, lunges, split squats, hip thrusts, kettlebell swings, push press and so on. While jumping is hip dominant, we also need to have strong knees and ankles to sustain high forces during landing and to accumulate as much energy as possible for take-offs, as well as a fully engaged core to transfer the forces between our limbs. Another crucial factor is having proper dorsiflexion in your ankles to minimize the risk of injury to the knee or ankle4 such as ankle sprains and ACL injuries common to basketball players.
Olympic lifts are also very useful for improving the vertical jump, because they train athletes to apply force very quickly and recruit more motor units. For very advanced athletes, eccentric strength training can also be beneficial. It’s crucial to train for relative strength (be very powerful, but also very light) and not to gain excessive weight, because gravity is uncompromising and will drag you down. When programming lifts, we must keep in mind that both plyometrics and strength training are very taxing on the CNS. That’s why we should be careful in choosing the training load.
If you want to know if you should focus primarily on strength training or on plyometrics, try this simple test: compare your standing jump from a static position (without bending your knees) to your jump with bent knees. If the difference between them is big, you have good plyometric ability and are able to utilize elastic force, which means you should focus primarily on strength training to improve the amount of power you can exert. On the contrary, if the difference is insignificant, you should incorporate more plyometric training to your workout routine to increase the amount of elastic energy you are able to generate and, more importantly, accumulate.
Increasing the height of your vertical jump is not the only benefit of this type of training. Studies suggest that jumping to objects above your head alter your biomechanics and you become more resistant to injury, plus there is the exciting motivational factor as your training leads you to a higher vertical jump. 2,3 High power output in your leap transfers to higher power output overall which is useful in many other arenas of fitness – especially in speed development.
If you choose to include this type of training to your routine, it is important that you first learn how to land. Then, you should incorporate some of the low-impact plyometric drills to improve your conditioning, stiffen your tendons, and to better the coordination of your movement. To make the most out of the training, you should combine the plyometrics with weight training, but keep in mind that both of these methods of training are very demanding on your central nervous system, so don’t forget to rest.
1 RAMINI, Rahman a Behpur NASER. The effects of plyometric, weight and plyometric-weight training on anaerobic power and muscular strength. Facta universitatis – series: Physical Education and Sport. 2005(vol 3), 81-91.
2 MOK, K-M., R. BAHR a T. KROSSHAUG. The effect of overhead target on the lower limb biomechanics during a vertical drop jump test in elite female athletes. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine. 2015, , n/a-n/a. DOI: 10.1111/sms.12640. ISSN 09057188. Dostupné také z: https://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/sms.12640
3 FORD, Kevin R., Gregory D. MYER, Rose L. SMITH, Robyn N. BYRNES, Sara E. DOPIRAK a Timothy E. HEWETT. Use of an Overhead Goal Alters Vertical Jump Performance and Biomechanics. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2005, 19(2), 394-. DOI: 10.1519/15834.1. ISSN 1064-8011. Dostupné také z: https://nsca.allenpress.com/nscaonline/? request=get-abstract
4 MALLOY, Philip, Alexander MORGAN, Carolyn MEINERZ, Christopher GEISER a Kristof KIPP. The association of dorsiflexion flexibility on knee kinematics and kinetics during a drop vertical jump in healthy female athletes. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy. 2015, 23(12), 3550-3555. DOI: 10.1007/s00167-014-3222-z. ISSN 0942-2056. Dostupné také z: https://link.springer.com/10.1007/s00167-014-3222-z